From my experience, although it isn’t always explicitly mentioned as an issue of concern, I have observed that trust is a theme which keeps on coming up in coaching conversations. Trust can be defined as confidence amongst members that each other’s intentions are good, and it is one of the characteristics of high performing teams. Employees who work in organisations with high levels of trust, tend to be more productive, have more energy, enjoy their work more and are more engaged with their work. In contrast, levels of employee stress and anxiety are higher in organisations with low levels of trust.
At an individual level, what I’ve noticed – particularly when a person has low self-confidence – is that this may manifest as an inability to trust in oneself or one’s own abilities to perform tasks to a perceived ideal standard, particularly if a person has perfectionist tendencies. Examples include, feeling unable to speak up in meetings, or present to audiences at a standard which the individual perceives necessary for them to gain approval from their colleagues. However, what I would like to focus on in this article is the wider system in which individuals sit, particularly the role that trust plays in teams in the workplace.
Along with purpose and connection, trust is one of the most critical aspects of psychological safety. I’ve observed that trust is often an underlying theme in cases of team dysfunction or conflict between team members. For example, people describe not feeling able to fully trust particular colleagues or leaders in their organisation for fear of being ridiculed, undermined or blamed for mistakes. More often than not, after listening to the individual’s narratives, it is easy to see how an event, a comment, or even a facial expression, could lead them to feel this way. However, if left unaddressed, and because our minds are biased towards negative chatter, we tend to hook onto thoughts and narratives which reinforce our belief that someone for example: “Has it in for me” or “Has never liked me” or “Is out to get to me” or “Doesn’t think I’m up to the job”. Some of the ways in which this lack of trust can manifest itself in teams is people trying to avoid being implicated, not taking risks for fear of being singled out, and blaming each other for mistakes or problems. They question colleagues’ ‘real intentions’. In coaching, I have seen this emerge in rumination and unhelpful thinking patterns such as mind-reading and catastrophising.
Unless challenged, our minds can run away with these narratives and blow the situation out of proportion. The longer this goes on and people don’t feel safe enough to voice their concerns, the more likely the dynamic turns into one of ‘us and them’. Team members feel they are not listened to or that their opinion is not valued, and so they question what the point is in saying anything and keep quiet or withdraw altogether. In turn, leaders choose to assume that everything is okay because team members aren’t telling them anything is wrong, further reinforcing their behaviour. Unfortunately, this just creates a vicious cycle of more resentment, withdrawal, and further repetition of the same behaviours.
In addition, when we experience chronic stress, we tend to neglect the things which can help to build up our levels of emotional resilience such as sleep, nutrition, exercise, relaxation and relationships. All of these things are crucial in helping us achieve a healthy work-life balance. Unfortunately, when our brain is stuck in a fight or flight mode, we are less able to react in a rational way to emotional triggers and can get swept away by negative thoughts.
Many people have commented that they feel as if these thoughts are exacerbated by remote working, leading them to feel even more excluded and isolated from their colleagues than they would have if they were meeting them in person. If not addressed and disputed early on, an issue that may easily have been resolved in person, ‘around the water cooler’ or with a quick chat, is left to fester and inevitably starts taking on a life of its own, even if there is no evidence or logic behind it. In addition, as it is now over a year since many people have been able to base themselves in their normal office environments, it is inevitable that many people have started new jobs and projects and are meeting colleagues and other stakeholders for the first time in the virtual realm. Unless a conscious effort is made to build rapport and a strong sense of meaning and connection, working in this way can make it even more difficult to build trusting relationships. This is especially the case for introverts and people who aren’t as confident about speaking up in meetings if they fear that they are less knowledgeable and experienced than their colleagues. This is particularly relevant in organisations with very clear hierarchical structures, which is often the case in more traditional health care settings. Studies show that team members tend to assign a disproportionate share of credit for team successes to leaders or to ‘star performers’, and a disproportionate share of the blame for team failures to internal scapegoats.
When there is an absence of trust, this can lead to team dysfunction. People try to protect themselves and are fearful of conflict. They may even pretend that everything is okay, and that there isn’t any conflict. This leads to a lack of commitment and ambiguity about goals and tasks. After all, it is harder to pin the blame if it is not clear who or what is expected from individuals! A lack of accountability results, which leads to low standards of work. Instead of focusing on what they are trying to achieve collectively and paying attention to the results, people in dysfunctional teams become increasingly preoccupied with focusing on their own status and ego.
Research has shown that people are able to learn more, are more engaged and perform better at work, if they feel that they can be open with their colleagues about work and interpersonal issues. In a psychologically safe team, team members feel comfortable enough to: speak up and share ideas, ask for help, admit mistakes, and take risks which enable learning and innovation. Crucially, in a ‘psychologically safe’ climate, people are able to do all of this without fearing negative consequences such as looking ‘stupid’.
In contrast, in a team with low psychological safety, individuals shy away from asking questions, sharing ideas and suggestions, and admitting to mistakes. In a climate of low psychological safety, individuals tend to keep quiet or withdraw if the threat of embarrassment, ‘losing face’, being seen as incompetent, or being blamed for team failures, outweighs the rewards of being open. Unfortunately, this reluctance to being open for fear of being singled out, results in numerous learning opportunities being lost.
We are naturally attracted to people who have similar views to ourselves as this validates who we are and the choices we have made. However, innovation is stifled when the same people continue to dictate how things are done. If we surround ourselves by people who agree with us all of the time and who come from very similar backgrounds and cultures to our own, we will miss out on so many opportunities for creativity and innovation. Without this diversity of life experiences and different ways of viewing the world, things continue to be done the way they always have been. After all, if things appear to be working and nobody is disagreeing with you, why would you want to go through the hassle of changing anything? Unfortunately, this approach can only last as long as it takes for it not to work. If our experience over the past year has taught us anything, it is that things will not always go to plan!
So, as a leader, what can you do to build levels of trust within your team? Here are a few ideas.
- Raise your self-awareness. Take the time to reflect and ask for feedback on the way you react in particular situations.
- Consider how your behaviour may be perceived by others.
- Role model positive behaviours.
- Slow down and take the time to check in with staff.
- Build resilience in yourself and your team members by encouraging self-care and a healthy work-life balance.
- Be curious and ask questions.
- Take a genuine interest in the team and show that you value their opinions.
- Harness diversity within the team by taking the time to really listen to what each person has to say, giving them a safe space to ask questions and present new ideas which challenge the status quo.
- Be consistent.
Aiming to be an inspiring leader with executive presence? In my Executive Leadership Coaching Programme, one of the six key areas that we focus on is your leadership style. We’ll reflect on your current style and strengths, then create a development plan to help you become the leader you want to be. Through a combination of reliable and valid assessment tools based on neuroscience and strengths-based psychology and 1-2-1 coaching sessions, you will discover how to draw on your skills, knowledge and experience to increase your energy, engagement and productivity at work and achieve your full potential. Contact me to book a no-obligations discovery call and find out whether this programme is the right fit for you and/or your team.
Accredited Coach, Coaching Psychologist and Consultant
I found content and inspiration for this article from the following sources:
Dr Amanda Potter and her colleagues at BeTalent (www.betalent.com), in particular their research findings on resilience, psychological safety and cognitive diversity.
Clutterbuck, D. (2020) Coaching the team at work: The definitive guide to team coaching (2nd edition). Nicholas Brealy Publishing. London.